What is your next step if you’re given a poor Ofsted report? Angela Youngman discusses this, and talks to one headteacher who took over a school in the ‘notice to improve’ category

All headteachers dread getting a bad Ofsted report. Since the introduction of the current school inspection arrangements in September 2005, schools whose overall effectiveness is deemed inadequate have been placed in one of two categories: special measures or notice to improve. Special measures is the most serious of the two categories. The main reasons for schools being judged inadequate overall were inadequate achievement by pupils, inadequate teaching and learning and ineffective leadership and management.

Schools who think they might have a problem can take action early, in a bid to avoid problems occurring or to avoid going into special measures. Adrian Percival of National Strategies comments: ‘The critical document is the self-evaluation form. Use your school improvement partner. Ask them to be as challenging as possible so as to be aware of any possible downsides. Having an accurate self-evaluation will stop you going into special measures as it provides evidence that you are seeking to improve. You may still be given a notice to improve, but you will have already started on improvement measures.’

Once a school is given a notice to improve or is placed in special measures, the first reaction is always defensive. Some schools will seek to appeal, saying that the inspection was unjust. Sometimes this is the case, and an appeal will work. In general terms over half of all appeals are successful.

Taking action
If unsuccessful, or a school decides not to appeal; the next step is to take action.

‘It is better to get on with creating an improvement plan,’ says Adrian. Ofsted will have indicated areas of concern but not how to improve. There may be other underlying factors. Talk to the school improvement partner – they will help and provide additional support.

‘A special monitoring and improvement group will be set up comprising local education officers, the headteacher, governors, possibly deputy head and special advisors. This group will meet every six weeks or so and will provide oversight of the school improvement plan. All support should be organised by the headteacher – it is the head’s responsibility to deal with improvement. Make sure that everyone involved is focused on improvement and that the support provided is the exact support that is needed. There are national strategy consultants who can support the school in core subjects – English, mathematics, science – and also behaviour and attendance. They can focus in on how improvements can be made in those areas.’

For the headteacher the message is clear. It is their responsibility to improve the school. The headteacher must be clear as to what support the school needs, what support it is getting, what it is achieving and what the impact has been. Clear assessments are needed at regular intervals to make sure that the aims are being met, and not missed in any way. As Adrian points out, ‘If the help is not being effective, then it will affect the synergy of the school or department.’ The headteacher needs to be constantly on top of the situation, and not get distracted by anything else that is happening.

Close monitoring
During 2006/07 Ofsted expanded its programme of monitoring visits to schools causing concern. Those subject to special measures continued to receive monitoring inspections, normally each term, until removed from the category of concern. All schools given a notice to improve now receive monitoring visits approximately six to eight months after the inspection that placed them in the category.

An area that often gets overlooked is public relations. Receiving a bad Ofsted does involve a lot of bad press. The newspapers get to hear of it, stories appear in the papers and the school is dubbed as failing. This can deter parents from sending their children there and encourage parents of children already at the school to seek to move them elsewhere.

For the headteacher, it should become a priority to present a good impression, focusing on all the positive aspects of the school. Giving interviews with the press showing how the school is improving means that stories filter back into the wider community; likewise providing parents with as much positive information as possible about what is going on. And of course, look for any positive stories about what the children are doing – a school play, community affairs, helping a charity. Promoting these help to give a good image of the school, and make the pupils feel pride in their school.

Changing fortunes
Dealing with problems and reversing the fortunes of a school can happen quite fast. Most schools placed in the special measures category are removed from it within two years. During 2006/07, 276 schools which had been given a notice to improve in 2005/06 were re-inspected a year after being placed in the category. On re-inspection, 92% had made sufficient progress to be judged at least satisfactory overall, and 13% of these were then judged to be good schools. A very small minority (5%) of the re-inspected schools continued to require a notice to improve and 3% were made subject to special measures because they had not made the necessary improvements.

In order to be removed from special measures or notice to improve; a school must show improvements in terms of pupil achievement and in their provision of teaching and learning, leadership and management. According to the Ofsted Annual Report, improvement in the processes of monitoring and self-evaluation was a key factor in the recovery of schools causing concern, especially those subject to special measures, enabling them to target areas of weakness more precisely.

Management comes under close scrutiny in such circumstances. Jon Sheridan, development manager, Areté, the specialist leadership division of educational recruitment consultancy Select Education comments: ‘When Ofsted cites poor school leadership, it can spark a plunge in morale and may breed an “abandon ship”culture at a time when leadership is instrumental in getting back on course. The leadership team is crucial in identifying the steps to manage the changes needed to implement reforms, as well as providing the capacity the school has to make them. To compound matters, the leadership team needs to raise the depleted morale of the wider school staff too.’

He continues, ‘This is a lot to juggle on top of the day to day running of the school. Leadership teams may want to consider, therefore, temporarily bolstering themselves with experienced professionals with relevant expertise, allowing incumbent staff to concentrate on their roles and not be spread too thinly.’

Putting new heads in place
A change of headteacher occurred at nearly half of the schools subject to special measures. This may involve bringing in a troubleshooter – someone who has already proved their worth in running a school in special measures, and who has the experience needed to know exactly what is needed. Alternatively, there may be a need for a ‘caretaker headteacher’ to hold the fort and, as Sheridan points out, there may also be need for other interim senior staff.

‘Headteachers are not the only position on the leadership team that can benefit from an interim manager,’ says Jon. ‘Experienced interim school leaders will work alongside the school’s own leadership team to address school improvement issues and seek to address these areas. For example, a school that is ineffective in the management of data may benefit from an experienced data manager to aid this process.

‘Whatever route is taken by a school, it is important to use Ofsted as a catalyst for change by addressing the issues. Ofsted should, after all, only be telling you what you already know. The leadership team has to remain positive and avoid the temptation to become apathetic or start attributing unjustified blame.’

Occasionally, even more drastic measures are called for, such as the replacement of governing bodies with interim executive boards. The Department for Children, Schools and Families currently lists 25 schools as possessing interim executive boards. Such boards act as a catalyst for school improvement by providing clear strategic direction and robust challenge.

Case study: Focus on Dunstan School Dunstan School in Northamptonshire has been in an Ofsted category for six and a half years. Within the past two years it has progressed from special measures to notice to improve. Jane Herriman was appointed head of the school two years ago. She knew what to expect, having been trained to work in challenging schools. ‘Receiving a bad Ofsted report should not be a surprise,’ she says. ‘A headteacher should be aware that there are problems. What it does is allows a line to be drawn and improvements to be made. It allows a redressing of the school’s problems. Staff have to see it as a positive move. ‘There is a lot of PR needed so that student numbers do not decline. It can take time to come out of special measures. You don’t come out early once you have been in as long as we have been. You need a slow securing position, allowing exam results to prove success. You need to go through an exam season and beyond that. It can take years if the problems are ingrained. ‘The headteacher needs to lead the changes and staff have to be prepared to change. When I came here, I restructured all the staff, making accountability very simple and straightforward, as before, there had been a lot of complicated systems with confusion over who was accountable to who. Training was made available to staff and I sought to bring in expertise wherever necessary. I would even go out of the county to discuss issues with schools that had outstanding Ofsted reports. ‘Middle management was an issue. I worked with NSCL and used cohort training to make a difference. There were lots of negatives about, and it was an issue to change people’s perceptions over time. ‘There has been a constant policy of looking for positive stories, snippets which have enabled pupil’s activities to be recognised and publicised.’ A key issue faced by Jane Herriman on arrival was children’s behaviour. It had been allowed to get out of hand and there were no informally accepted rules of behaviour. Dealing with this was seen as a priority. ‘It had to be adult-led,’ says Jane. ‘One of the first rules staff made was that no mobile phones were allowed in school. The first student who used a mobile phone had it taken away. The parents came in to talk to me and after a while they understood why we had introduced this policy; that it was a whole-school issue rather than one child. There were other ways of communicating with home when at school.

‘Students want boundaries. When we provided them, they accepted them. The students wanted to be proud of their school. We provided them with a voice – the Cadre, which is a group of elected students. These are a cross-section of students from throughout the school who give feedback and are involved in the school activities.’